As parents of an unschooled kid we never really have any restrictions on most things our daughter wants to do. However, in the recent past, we had to bring in some restrictions. As you might recall, I am an ardent supporter of technology. And so, I believe that kids should also grow up with technology if they want to find their place in this world. My spouse on the other hand does not quite agree with me in this regard :). Anyway, the point of this post is not about whether technology is good or bad for kids, but more about whether they can self regulate addictive behavior.

How it started

Our daughter has a tablet with pen support. Previously she used to have another tablet which was not holding charge anymore. While I tried to replace the battery, it did not work out. The reason for buying a tablet with pen support was because at the time she used to do a lot of drawings and paintings on the tablet. I felt that she might have more control with a pen instead of finger. However, soon after buying the tablet with pen support, she rarely did any drawings :). Just imagine how quickly kid’s interests change.

Anyway I am diverging from the topic. As I was saying, I have always wanted my daughter to be well versed with the tools of the modern world if she chooses to use them. I don’t ask her to use the tablet, but if she picks it up over her toys or story books, I am not the one to discourage. She has been using the tablet since she was five yours old, mostly to watch youtube videos. At some point she enjoyed virtual reality on the phone. Then she moved on to some kid games etc. As time progressed, her tastes also kept changing.

Minecraft fever

Our daughter plays with a bunch of kids near where we live. After the second wave of COVID was over, and as parents relaxed the restrictions, all the kids were playing together. There are kids of various ages from 3 years to 13 year olds. Eventually one of the older kids started talking about Minecraft. I think she got curious and asked me if I will install the game for her. Although I don’t normally say no, this time I resisted installing the game for as long as possible.

My worry was that she might meet some shady characters on the multiplayer game and might not know how to deal with them. I have never played the game, so I have no idea if the people on the chat can use foul language etc. I explained my worry to her which is why I am not installing the app. Anyway, I eventually caved in when she kept on asking as she was getting more and more curious about the game after having watched her friend play on XBox. The other reason was that even her mother was supportive of it! We both agreeing on something? Now that is a rare moment isn’t it? So I installed the app on her tablet.

She had a lot of fun learning the game and creating some interesting designs. Then she started learning more about the game on YouTube. I enjoyed all the time I spent with her as she bragged about her designs. She would go to great lengths explaining me the game, about ender dragon, ender men, mobs, creepers, zombies, their tridents and what not. Slowly the amount of time she spent on tablet went up to 3 or 4 hours from 1 or 2 hours a day. Yet, I was not worried. I am still thinking that she will eventually get bored and come out of it. It happened before, so why not now?

Strike one

During this period, one day she got sick with food poisoning. May be a bad egg or something. She was down with mild fever and vomiting sensation. She would not eat any food. Just water. Normally when she falls sick, she sleeps most of the time and recovers well. This time however she was just stuck to the tablet. She would be tired and uncomfortable but would still play. We asked her to take breaks and try to sleep. Once in a while she would listen and fall asleep. But most times that did not work. She recovered slower than usual. That was the first strike against tablet.

Strike two

Later on, once she recovered, she still continued using the tablet for way too long than before. At this point, her usage has reached 5 to 6 hours a day. The tablet’s battery would completely drain by evening from a full charge in the morning. Now she was reaching addiction phase. She would routinely get so engrossed in the game or videos that she does not recognize hunger anymore and would skip meals if not for us telling her it is quite late. After waking up in the morning the first thing she would do is reach out for the tablet. She was even skipping playing with her friends outside so she can play with the tablet. This is certainly strike two in my books.

I have been watching this whole drama unfold, hoping that she would eventually get bored and reduce the amount of time she spends on tablet. She is eight years old, so I was wondering if she could self regulate. Apparently I was wrong because this phase went on for three weeks. Almost everyday, we used to remind her that she is going into addiction territory and she is forgetting meals, or bath or sleep. She would listen and say she will change, but the change never came. To be fair, she was trying but addiction is hard to fight for an eight year old I guess.

The last straw

At the end of around three weeks of this crazy period, an unexpected event took place. One day while she was playing a game, her mother asked her to go take a quick bath. She went to her room quite grudgingly and came back in 5 minutes. When asked if she took a bath, she said yes. Now we both know she did not take a bath. And lying is a big no-no for us. This was the last straw. I could not take it anymore. While I would like to be a radical unschooler – letting her figure things out for herself, this modern technology is perhaps not one of them, just like food or drug addiction.

We gave her a stern talk about how lying is unacceptable whether to family or to anyone. Explained her how the internet addiction has driven her to lying. So we told her that she cannot have the tablet anymore until we decide she has broken out of her addiction. She went from using the tablet for 5 to 6 hours a day to zero. As parents we debated with each other a lot whether to go completely tablet-free in one fell swoop or reduce the time slowly. We were worried if the sudden restriction will cause some unintended consequences like not being able to trust us anymore etc. But eventually we decided that zero tablet is the way to go.

Back to normalcy?

For 10 days she survived completely without tablet. She anyway never liked watching TV so she went completely zero screen-time. All she did was play board games, solve jigsaw puzzles, build with lego, read books, paint, went cycling, skipping, or play with her friends in the play area. Finally she is back to her normal self. Once in a while she would mention that she wished she could watch tablet, but we did not say anything.

Finally after 10 days, I told her she could use tablet again to do whatever she wants, but she has to limit herself to one hour and no more. She was visibly happy but said no for that day. The next day she was going on vacation anyway. That happened three days ago. So far in the last three days she did not use much of the tablet. Currently she is enjoying a vacation at her maternal grandparents place. She loves the beach over there and can spend many many hours playing in the water. May be that is the reason she did not feel the need to use tablet. Have to see how things pan out once she is back.

The failed experiment

This was a failed experiment. I wanted to see if an eight year old can self-regulate addiction. It does not seem like it is possible at least with my daughter. She needs an adult’s help. Anyway, none of this is really her fault. She is just being herself, how an eight year old is supposed to behave. On the other hand, we had a good learning experience understanding how the brain of a child works. They live in the moment and cannot fathom the ill effects of an addiction even when explained thoroughly. Because for them, there was never a past, there will never be a future. What they see is just the present (pun intended)!